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What Two Little Jewish Girls Taught Me about Being a Mormon Male Leader

by Miki Yoshihito through Creative Commons license on Flickr

by Miki Yoshihito through Creative Commons license on Flickr

I used to teach piano lessons in my house. Every day after school, I had five to six kids coming in and out. These kids were great—thoughtful, well-behaved, if not the most diligent at practicing the piano.

In the month of December, we always did a Christmas recital. After all, the majority of my students came from my LDS network, and once my oldest started a Church of Christ preschool, I thought it was still a safe bet that everyone was Christian.

In November, we began picking our music, and I gave two sisters who were also relatively new students their songs. We found and agreed to go with “O Christmas Tree” and “Silent Night.” They returned next week having not practiced their songs…at all.

They were nervous and fidgety. I explained that perhaps they wanted something more fun, but those songs were perfect for their level. “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman” were just a little too advanced.

Still, something wasn’t right. And, then, I thought to ask, “Does your family celebrate Christmas?”

As you can tell from the title of this post, their family was Jewish.

I felt horrible for days after. Calling their parents to apologize (they were very gracious), apologizing to the girls, ordering a bunch of Jewish holiday piano books and arranging something for each of them. (We had to force things a bit, but someone somewhere must have sung “Hava Nagilia” during their Hanukah celebrations, right?)

I think back to that situation often and wish I could explain it to my male Church leaders. I had years of interfaith chaplaincy training and yet, I didn’t think twice to ask how they wanted to participate. I assumed I knew what was going on.

I was their piano teacher after all. I knew what was right for their levels of experience in piano training. I knew what the favorites of the beginning students were. I gave those songs quickly and confidently and didn’t think twice about the exchange during those lessons.

How often have I sat in a chair in Church, uncomfortable and nervous with the conversation in Sunday School or in ward council because of the assumptions heard in the platitudes expressed by a leader? “You don’t need the priesthood because as a woman you’re more righteous than men.” “The women can best participate in this activity by providing the food. That’s what they prefer to do anyway.”

In those cases at Church, I am the piano student. I sit and fidget because there is a power dynamic at play. Do I risk speaking up? Maybe there’s something I’m missing. Maybe I’m the only one. Maybe I should just stay quiet.

I don’t want to argue with a leader at Church–as the bishop or stake president, he is privy to more information about the rest of the congregation than I am. Maybe there is something in those words that others need to hear. By necessity, our leaders do sometimes need to make assumptions.

But, I hope that when my bishop sees that I am nervous or fidgety, he will stop, think, and ask if there is a problem. I hope he will remember that he is in a position of power and authority that means that he may not always have the whole picture, just as I as a member of a congregation do not always have the whole picture. Perhaps together, through honest discussion and a genuine attempt to understand, we can learn from each other.

I also realize that my implied analogy doesn’t totally work here. I am not a young girl under the direction of an adult teacher. I do have the responsibility to speak up when I am nervous and I can’t hold my leaders responsible for reading my body language. But, I believe this is worth bringing up, particularly in this current climate when so many members are being disciplined under the vague definition of apostasy.

I am blessed with good leaders at my ward and stake level who do listen to my concerns and who I do feel safe speaking frankly with. However, I worry. I hear stories from so many friends who have leaders who believe their assumptions are truths based in doctrine. They are not interested in dialogue. And, when that situation exists, we risk opportunities for productive dialogue and opportunities to build the Kingdom of God.

How can we, as those who think outside mainstream Mormon thought, know when to bring up our concerns? How can we identify leaders who are willing to listen and work with us on solutions?

How can Church leaders best evaluate when they are making assumptions that can cause discomfort or pain for their congregants?


EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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8 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    What a great anecdote and analogy, Emily. This topic reminds me of an essay Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once wrote called, “A Need for Nourishment,” I think. In it, she talks about what it means to sustain leaders, going back to the root of sustain, in the sense of feeding and nourishing them. We nourish them and help them grow by offering them our honest feedback. I love that idea — yet in reality, I rarely speak up. I don’t like the idea of meeting with a bishop in his office; there’s an uncomfortable power dynamic there. Email? I’ve done that before, but it’s not always the best. I’m in no ward councils, so my opinion won’t be coming out there. I guess I often do feel like your little fidgety piano students — I’d love it if there were more mechanisms for giving feedback and more of a norm for bishops to ask ward members for feedback.

  2. spunky says:

    This is such a well-thought out and powerful analogy, Emily CC. Indeed, I have often wondered if the church is like two separate religions, because the men have such different rules and guidelines to the women. I also feel like a child- with no authority to say anything, but still so unhappy and uncomfortable. I am getting better at speaking up, but it is hard. We do need leaders who notice when we are fidgety, when we haven’t been “practicing” what they tell us to (some of Hugh Nibley’s advice on making marriage work comes to mind), and who care enough to look for solutions (new sheet music) when the traditional assumptions aren’t working.

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m not sure how to identify those who would help, or what might help church leaders can notice better…perhaps that is…just as you say, when we stop “practicing” and I don’t mean leaving the church, but skipping out on ward activities, lesson prep and so on– seems to me to be the precursor for unhappy or uncomfortable membership. Perhaps rather than preaching the “pray, read scriptures and attend meetings” line for those who seem less interested, we might ask them *why* they are less interested in “practicing” for the church.

  3. Ziff says:

    This is such an excellent analogy, Emily! Wonderful post!

  4. Anarene Holt Yim says:

    I like your analogy. It shows that any of us are subject to making poor decisions when we’re insulated from how our decisions affect others. That vulnerability we all have doesn’t really have anything to do with male or female; it has more to do with who’s in power and who’s not.

    I was just thinking yesterday how terrible my marriage would be if either my husband or I let the other one have their way all the time, or if we gave no opinions or reality-checks to each other. We would be completely clueless as to how the other felt, or how we were affecting the other. We’re happier because we have been able to discuss things as they come up, and we try to work out compromises. I feel similar in parenting, both communicating with my parents and my kids communicating with me. How are we supposed to learn without receiving feedback?

    I watched this play out in a doctor’s office yesterday too. The doctor asked my teenage daughter to do something and she didn’t want to do it. (It involved removing clothing.) My daughter didn’t have to give in and comply, and she didn’t have to take the opposite side and run out the door either. She told the doctor that she didn’t want to do it. He considered her age and circumstances and told her the test wasn’t really necessary anyway, so he was OK with her skipping it. They worked it out, are on good terms with each other, and they both agree that when she’s older she will probably want to start doing some more testing. I know from experience with this child that she will refuse to go to a doctor who pressures her or doesn’t listen to her.

    Without communication, it seems like the only choices for the lower-status people are black and white: stay and conform to the other person’s expectations, or just quit and leave. When communication is possible in both directions, all of a sudden, we have a plethora of choices.

    I feel we have a huge communication problem in the church. Even a suggestion boxes would be an improvement over what we have now. Top-down communication only is not a recipe for the happiness of the turtles on the bottom of the pile.

  5. EFH says:

    Great post and analogy.

    I am someone who usually speaks up, especially when I think it adds something valuable to the discussion. I try to make sure that I do not come across as superior in understanding something or as aggressive but I try to offer simply another alternative as a reminder that there are even more alternatives out there. I do not know how successful I am in doing it. I simply have decided to treat myself with respect and as an adult before demanding others do so. I believe that this sends the vibe to others that they are dealing with another adult, an equal to them, and therefore the conversation is important to happen. Even when I have said something very disagreeable, no one has ever dismissed me as a child.

  6. Jenny says:

    This is really great! I love your comparison between your piano students and how it feels to sit and listen to uncomfortable things being said at church. I feel like too often we put the burden on the individual not to take offense or to just get over what they are feeling, but we rarely put the burden on the offender or the person in charge to be aware of what others may be feeling. And even as an adult, you can only speak up so many times before you are just too tired of trying to get people to see it from your perspective.

  7. Suzette says:

    A great lesson! And a good reminder.

    And, you are right, we are not little girls, we are adults … even if the power dynamic does not always play in our favor. 🙂

    I do my best to speak up, speak out, and always engage in discussion and dialogue. When I do this in a kind and diplomatic way, I usually see results.

    So, my 2 cents:

    Be kind. Be aware. Be diplomatic. But always always – SPEAK!

  1. January 17, 2016

    […] What Two Little Jewish Girls Taught me about being a Male Mormon Leader […]

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